"Welcome to the Circus of Baseball"| Reviewed by Bill Schwab
In 1994 college graduate Ryan McGee set his sights on working as a commentator for ESPN; it was the only place he had ever wanted to work. The new grad won a coveted audition with the sports network but failed at the interview and was eliminated as a candidate.
McGee was desperate for a job, preferably in sports. He heard about a “Baseball Job Fair” in Atlanta, traveled there, and was offered a $100-a-week internship working for the Asheville Tourists, a minor league baseball team located at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He halfheartedly but gratefully signed on.
McGee’s duties were myriad and assorted. He took tickets at the gate, cleaned scuffed baseballs which had been recovered from the tall weeds behind the outfield fence, and wrestled with the 26,000-square-foot field tarp minutes before a storm hit. He washed the team uniforms, tapped kegs of beer, mixed flavored syrups for snow cones, and swept up debris under the grandstand.
The young employee also scavenged hamburgers too scorched to sell and ate cold hot dogs left over from those delivered to the umpires’ locker room after each game. He even took the daughter of the woman who ran the Dairy Queen to the prom after she had been stood up by her date; in return, he received free food. No job was too big or too small for McGee.
The Asheville Tourists were part of “the circus,” the tag given to the many minor leagues in America where aspiring young ball players demonstrated their talents, hoping to be noticed by scouts from the major leagues, dubbed “the show.”
During that season McGee learned many life lessons. His book contrasts the difference between the charm and magic of the ball field in Asheville to the impersonal, massive scale of New York's Citi Field. He draws readers’ attention to the size of the major league television contracts compared to local radio contracts and to the colossal difference in player salaries in the circus and the show.
He distinguishes between the way minor league operators struggle “to maintain a balance between the old ways of doing things, the very methods that had gotten them all to where they were now, and the newer, increasingly corporatized practices that might very well be their only chance of surviving in the future.”
This threat to tradition is what most worries Mr. McKee, especially when he sees the purging of many beloved clubs in small towns where fans have loyally followed their teams for decades. McGee has bitter words for the MLB owners who, in 2021, cut 42 minor league teams “because they had been deemed unnecessary.” He calls for the major league owners to strike a balance between caring for humanity (both the players and the fans,) and the corporatization of baseball where accountants and TV executives focus on the bottom line only.
Baseball fans will enjoy this sentimental but fresh look at the minor league tradition as they consider McGee's warning about the major league’s “spreadsheet approach” to baseball. This is a funny and winning account of McGee’s coming-of-age summer experiences. It is a celebration of baseball where money is not the only thing that counts.
About the Author: Ryan McGee is a senior writer for ESPN and cohost of Marty and McGee on ESPN Radio and the SEC Network. He has won five sports Emmys and has authored several books. Doubleday is the publisher of this 256-page book that contains a folio of nostalgic pictures of minor league players that stepped up to the major leagues.